The word was out that someone made a feature-length, first-person POV motion picture for the mainstream. I saw this opening weekend and made sure my seat was close to the screen and in the center aisle. I wanted the full, immersive, you-are-there experience touted by the preview. About an hour in, I seriously wondered why I hadn’t already walked out.
The story: In a scene ripped off from RoboCop, Henry wakes up, discovers he’s missing limbs, has lost his memory and is being cared for by his hot scientist girlfriend. I’m not being sexist–”hot scientist girlfriend” is all there is to the character. Anyway, Henry is an advanced super soldier (a steal from Universal Soldier, of all movies). He escapes from the flying (?!) lab, runs across Russia and kills a lot of people. Henry has no dialogue, we glimpse his face only once and watch, through his eyes, as he kills hundreds of bad guys.
How’s the technique? For starters, Henry’s eye line is off. Unless I missed a line of dialogue establishing how Henry’s pupils are in his neck, the establishing scenes are a botch. As Henry looks down on his body, I was frequently aware of how hard the movie is trying to make us believe a phony point of view. If this sounds like nitpicking, look at Gaspar Noe’s challenging, far riskier 2009 film Enter the Void. Through use of precise visuals and audio, Noe makes his viewers believe they’re seeing and hearing life through the skull of another human being with scary precision. Hardcore Henry, on the other hand, badly wants to be a live-action video game but is too chaotic, ugly and artless to be as fun as it should be.
Compare the masterful virtual reality scenes from Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days or Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (which are still chillingly spot-on, intimate and brilliantly staged) with anything in this movie. Those movies gave us first-person “memories” as vivid as the most lucid dreams. Here, the camera is so shaky, much of the action is incoherent.
The only moments that live up to the promise of the movie poster are the ones where Henry is either flying or falling. It’s such an exhilarating effect, and the movie itself is so ridiculous, why couldn’t Henry have flown in every scene?
Here’s another comparison that came to mind: the still shocking, nihilistic and amazing “Smack My B***h Up” music video from Prodigy. It was controversial in 1997, rarely shown on MTV and, in four and a half minutes, achieves the kind of perverse thrill and extension of our dark fantasies that Hardcore Henry can’t come close to.
Sharlto Copley is the biggest name in the cast and his work here is light years from his terrific performance in District 9. Copley plays different versions of “Jimmy,” whose true identity is a surprise, though I’m not sure I could fully explain why. Copley overacts in lots of different disguises. Everyone else in the cast is equally bad. The irredeemable moment: Copley “singing” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
I could point out that the whole thing is misogynist, horribly violent, morally deplorable and often vile, but why bother? After all, it’s called Hardcore Henry. I’m supposed to be okay with how extreme it is, right? Fine. It gives certain viewers exactly what they want, but don’t the rest of us deserve more?
The climactic battle involves Henry taking on dozens of soldiers, all of whom are dressed in white (presumably to maximize the bloodshed). Unlike the thrilling, bloody bonkers and extraordinary battle between The Bride and the Yakuza army in Kill Bill Vol. 1, I could barely keep track of what was happening. This and other scenes feel like we’re watching Hardcore Henry with the Fast Forward button on. If only that were true.